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A New Theory of Thorstein Veblen
Veblen’s ideas on the effect of wealth on behavior were penetrating, original and, to the dismay of his contemporaries, highly uninhibited.
April 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 3
The nearest thing in the United States to an academic legend—equivalent to that of Scott Fitzgerald in fiction or the Barrymores in the theatre—is the legend of Thorstein Veblen. The nature of such a legend, one assumes, is that the reality is enlarged by imagination and that, eventually, the image has an existence of its own. This is so of Veblen. He was a man of great and fertile mind and a marvelously resourceful exponent of its product. His life, beginning on the frontier of the upper Middle West in 1857 and continuing, mostly at one university or another, until his death in 1929, was not without adventure of a kind. Certainly, by the standards of academic life at the time, it was nonconformist. There was ample material both in his work and in his life on which to build the legend, and the builders have not failed.
There is, in fact, a tradition in American social thought that traces all contemporary comment on and criticism of American institutions to Veblen. As with Marx to a devout Marxist, everything is there. The Marxist, however, is somewhat more likely to know his subject. It is possible, indeed, that nothing more clearly marks an intellectual fraud in our time than a penchant for glib references to Veblen, particularly for assured and lofty reminders, whenever something of seeming interest is said, that Veblen said it better and first.
The legend deriving from Veblen’s life owes even more to imagination. What is believed—about his grim, dark boyhood in a poor immigrant Norwegian family in Minnesota; his reaction to these oppressive surroundings; his harried life in the American academic world of the closing decades of the last century and the first two of this; the fatal way he attracted women and vice versa and its consequences in his tightly corseted surroundings; the indifference of all right-thinking men to his work—has only a limited foundation in fact.
Economics is a dull enough business and sociology is sometimes worse, and so, sometimes, are those who profess these subjects. When, as with Veblen, the man is enlarged by a nimbus, the latter should be brightened, not dissolved. One reason that economics and sociology are dull is the belief that everything associated with human personality should be made as humdrum as possible. That is science. Still, there is a certain case for truth, and in regard to Veblen the truth is also far from tedious. His life was richly interesting; his boyhood, if much less grim than commonly imagined, had a deep and lasting effect on his later writing. Veblen is not a universal source of insight on American society. He did not see what had not yet happened. Also, on some things he was wrong, and faced with a choice between accuracy and a formulation that he felt would fill his audience with outrage, he rarely hesitated. He opted for the outrage. But no man of his time or since has looked with such a cool and penetrating eye, not so much at pecuniary gain as at the way its pursuit makes men and women behave.
This cool and penetrating view is the substance behind the Veblen legend. It is a view that still astonishes the reader with what it reveals. While there may be other deserving candidates, only two books by American economists of the nineteenth century are still read. One of these is Henry George’s Progress and Poverty; the other is Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class. Neither of these books, it is interesting to note, came from the sophisticated and derivative world of the eastern seaboard. Both were products of the frontier—reactions of frontiersmen, in one case to speculative alienation of land, in the other to the pompous social ordinances of the affluent. But the comparison cannot be carried too far. Henry George was the exponent of a notably compelling idea; his book remains important for that idea—for the notion of the terrible price that society pays for private ownership and the pursuit of profit in land. Veblen’s great work is a wide-ranging and timeless comment on the behavior of people who possess or are in pursuit of wealth and who, looking beyond their wealth, want the eminence that, or so they believe, wealth was meant to buy. No one has really read very much if he hasn’t read The Theory of the Leisure Class at least once. Not many of more than minimal education get through life without referring at some time or another to “conspicuous consumption,” “pecuniary emulation,” or “conspicuous waste” even though they may not be quite certain whence these phrases came.